It’s surfing, not paddling

The transition from spring to summer hit a high note this year with an epic swell bridging the gap between the two seasons. The powerful New Zealand swell coincided, or shall we say collided, with the end of school and the beginning of tourist season. Most of us found a week filled with non-stop surf action, coupled with a dash of frustration and a fair amount of bobbing and weaving through the crowds.

After the foam subsided, however, two things remained clear: (1) summer surfing can, at times, still make us giddy, and (2) a significant amount of surfers need to go back to duck-diving 101.

Surfers who are actively participating in the sport, regardless of ability, tenure or ego, need to fully understand that the sport is called “surfing” not “paddling.” Appreciating this concept should make it easier to remember the single most important imperative directing the surf experience: The riding surfer has priority.

Sure, every effort should be made by everyone in the water to ensure a safe experience for all participants, but when the ultimate goal of the sport is to catch and ride a wave successfully, that means it’s everyone else’s duty and obligation to get out of the way. Sometimes that means taking big, ugly waves on the head. In a crowded line-up it gets even trickier. Every attempt must be made to control one’s own equipment while taking these same big, ugly waves on the head. A leash is never an excuse to toss one’s board aside in a crowd. Frantically attempting to “out-run” the riding surfer to the shoulder is one of the most obnoxious examples of surfers failing to yield to proper protocol.

There are several situations in play contributing to this outrageous breech of etiquette. Years ago, surfers showing flagrant disregard or complete ignorance of the rules (and there aren’t many in surfing given the general non-conformist attitude prevalent within the sport) were quickly, sometimes violently, unceremoniously ordered out of the water. This doesn’t happen so much anymore, colored as it was with the faint tinge of localism. Kids who are directly handed the baton of surfing from a respected elder, be it a parent, coach or whomever, generally have the rules drilled into their respective towheads upon entering the water and behave accordingly. However, many kids nowadays are picking up surfing alone or with a handful of peers who otherwise have had no historical connection to surfing. Many of these kids have a vague notion of etiquette, but either don’t fully understand it or don’t fully embrace it.

Or maybe they, along with their rude brethren who should know better, simply don’t care. Crowds in any venue have a way of inoculating people from empathizing with each other or each other’s experience, instead directing focus selfishly inward. It’s a rat race out there, and with a limited commodity (waves) the laws of supply and demand are sorely tested.

Unfortunately, last week’s swell also dramatized the importance of learning to duck-dive properly not from merely an etiquette standpoint, but from a safety standpoint as well.

Catching and riding waves is only one part of the overall experience in surfing big waves. It’s easy enough to stand on the bluff assessing each set as if one was in perfect position every time to catch the wave, ride it to shore and miraculously be back in position for the next one. From above, the shape is perfect, each section makeable without incident and the power deceptively benign.

The reality of a line-up can be entirely different, however, and regardless of one’s actual surfing ability, if one cannot safely manage a deep duck-dive in large, crowded conditions, you have no business being in that particular line-up that day, period.

Local surfer Bryant Leach found himself on the ill-fated end of someone not fully understanding how crucial this skill can be. A split-open face, thousands of dollars and 100 stitches later, he’s now out of the water for several weeks while the perpetrator remains free to surf, physically and monetarily unscathed.

Sure, it can be argued, surfing is an inherently dangerous sport, with participation comes risk of injury. On rare occasions even the best intentions between expert surfers can go awry. But perhaps now is the time to look to the “skiers code of conduct” for inspiration.

It is one thing when our own clumsiness or plain bad luck causes injury to ourselves, but just like getting your lift pass yanked for the day, if one causes serious injury to another surfer because of ineptitude, inexperience or over-aggressiveness, at the very least the offending surfer should have their “surf pass” revoked for the remainder of the swell.